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After brilliant debut, Wacha has something to prove

Cards phenom not guaranteed rotation spot despite breakout 2013 campaign

JUPITER, Fla. -- Months before St. Louis watched him flirt with a no-hitter, before a national audience got a glimpse at a rising star, Michael Wacha was stealing the spotlight here in South Florida. His bullpen sessions drew crowds. His live batting practice throws drew unsolicited praise. He went nearly untouched in exhibition games.

Spring marked the unofficial start of Wacha's 2013 ascent, one that culminated with his place in the postseason record books and removed any lingering anonymity.

"Last year, I came to spring trying to catch some attention," Wacha recalled. "I'm just trying to come in here and do the same thing this year."

Producing an encore performance as riveting as the original will be Wacha's tall task this season. Last year, he checked into Spring Training trying to get noticed. This season, there are expectations to shoulder. Such is the cost of success, especially when it comes in October.

Manager Mike Matheny has spent the spring emphasizing -- to players, staff and media -- the frivolity of outside expectations. That's because he believes the self-set expectations are greater.

Matheny's point is well taken and probably accurate in most cases. Wacha, however, knows that he could be the exception. He understands how incredibly high he set the bar.

"I'm sure people's expectations are going to be so out of this roof after the past postseason," Wacha said. "It's going to be tough to try to do that over a full year, so I try not to listen to those expectations. I have my own set. I'll just go from there."

If others are prone to expect immediate greatness, it has everything to do with the month-long stretch that began with 8 2/3 no-hit innings against Washington and didn't end until after he led the Cardinals to a World Series victory at Fenway Park. During that span, he pitched the Cardinals toward a division title, past a postseason elimination game and into the Fall Classic. He also hoisted the National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player trophy.

Combined in those five starts, Wacha allowed 12 hits and three earned runs, while walking 10 and striking out 37 in 35 2/3 innings. He won all five. It wasn't until Game 6 of the World Series that Wacha's fairytale run hit a snag.

"There's no doubt that when you see something like that happen, it's easy to gravitate to higher thoughts or higher expectations," general manager John Mozeliak said. "He needs to understand that the expectations are going to be high on him, but that he just needs to be true to himself."

Wacha said he aimed for normalcy this winter, though he couldn't stop the inundation of phone calls and house visits. He was able to escape most recognition by relocating to a Houston suburb, where life could go on as normal as it could for the 22-year-old. There, he prepared for the season along with a group of prospects, including Pirates right-hander Jameson Taillon, who described Wacha as "not big-headed, still the same quiet, humble guy."

Crowds followed Wacha around Winter Warm-Up in January and swarmed the sites he visited while on the team Caravan. He's readily picked out here in Spring Training workouts. The fanfare is similar to what awaited David Freese after his 2011 postseason heroics, and the former Cardinals third baseman has already passed along some advice.

"You have to respect what you did, you have to cherish what you did, but you have to move on, because nobody cares what you did [last year]," Freese said. "But I think one thing that he's done, and needs to continue to do, is remember how cool it was. That was a great moment for him, his ride, helping us win and stuff. But he wants more, and I think everybody sees it in him. So you don't need to say too much to the guy, but you definitely need to turn the page and keep working."

The Cardinals don't worry about complacency with Wacha, who is handling his spring work the same way he did a year ago. They've also let it be known that Wacha's postseason success does not guarantee him a spot in the Opening Day rotation. He is here to earn a spot in an eight-man competition. If he can, it will be sustained excellence he's after.

"I don't want to let it go to my head," Wacha said. "You have to perform whenever you're out there and get their attention."

As the Cardinals project what Wacha could contribute this season, they will loosen the leash on his workload. His innings count was closely monitored a year ago, though the Cardinals maximized the timing by taking away periodic starts from Wacha over the summer. That left him available in October.

He finished the year with 180 1/3 innings pitched -- 85 in Triple-A, 64 2/3 during the regular season and 30 2/3 in the postseason -- meaning that Wacha should be mostly uninhibited in his push toward 200 this year.

The work to get there starts now, in spring, just as the journey did a year ago.

"That's a great message to these other kids in camp right now," Matheny said. "You have an opportunity to really force us to look at you, and that's what Michael did. There wasn't anything given to him because of his Draft status or signing bonus. That had nothing to do with it. It had to do with when we got our eyes on him ... . And then how he handled himself around the clubhouse. It was how he went about his business as a pro to prove to us that he's someone who can be trusted, even though he's very young."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
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